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Religion and Society

The Freedom to Convert: the “Serious Case” of Religious Freedom

A mosque and a church in Cairo [Tamer Adel Soliman / Shutterstock]

Why the truth of freedom implies freedom to adhere to truth

This article was published in Oasis 8. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-11-04 21:40:02

The nexus between truth and freedom is for man one of the always resurgent questions because in the ultimate analysis it cannot be mastered or deduced in purely conceptual terms. The journey of Oasis, which on more than one occasion in recent years was near to touching upon this subject, by then suggested dedication to a broader and more precise approach. However, the characteristic attention to the data of reality that constitutes the inescapable method of our common project led us to privilege in this edition an approach to the question that would contextualise in today's world both reflection on the intrinsic direction of freedom towards truth and reflection on the truth of freedom. These arguments, indeed, find in the burning question of the freedom to convert, as a culminating expression of the freedom of religion and conscience, a decisive terrain of examination.



Two Opposing Difficulties



At the meeting of the scientific committee that was held in Amman on 21-25 June 2008 we had already observed that from the point of view of Western societies, religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom to convert cohabit with a paradox. They are certain recognised by juridical systems and the common mentality. However, two facts point to the frailty of this recognition. On the one hand, conscience is conceived in terms that we may define as “creative” in an equivocal sense [cf. Veritatis splendor, n.54], whereas conscience does not have the power to “actively” establish of its own accord what is good and evil. On the other hand, these freedoms are substantially thought of as a mere prerogative of the individual: “something” that refers to the sphere of the private and thus that cannot seek to have public relevance. The risk is that these two declinations of religious freedom (and freedom of conscience) become emptied of real contents in their practical exercise. In this way, indeed, one neither recognises the intrinsic dimension of truth of the religious experience nor admits that the religious experience expresses itself as a fact of a community and a people. If we now turn our attention to the experience of countries that have Muslim majorities, we are faced with a situation that is completely different. Both the dimension of truth of the religious experience and the popular dimension belong to the DNA of these peoples. They demonstrate great attachment to their own tradition. And yet one cannot deny the existence of a grave deficit in the sphere of religious freedom: one may think here of restrictions on worship in some countries and on citizenship for non-Muslims in others, and one may think above all else of the decisive question of the possibility of changing one's religion. In some situations it would appear that whereas one can tolerate a certain level of diversity for those already born to another faith, the request for religious freedom becomes intolerable if the person who asks to convert is a Muslim. The way out that not rarely is implicitly imposed on these people is illuminating here: if you want to leave Islam you have to abandon the country in order to avoid the “scandal” of a public gesture.



The Serious Case of the Relationship between Truth and Freedom



The gravity and urgent importance of the questions raised in the short and necessarily incomplete picture that I have outlined indicate how much the question of religious freedom touches upon the heart of man. Without any doubt, access to the “foundation' or better to the desire to enter into a relationship with it constitutes one of the most powerful stimuli that animate man's heart. As the famous phrase of St. Augustine observes: “quid enim fortius desiderat anima quam veritatem?”. Man is made for truth, he is directed towards it, as in various forms the religions of the world never cease to remind us and as the Muslim faith in a particularly insistent and positive way stresses. In it, so perceived is the decisiveness of the nexus between man and truth that the German orientalist Franz Rosenthal was able to describe the whole Arab-Islamic civilisation beginning with the category of “knowledge”. Here I was very struck to learn that in Arabic one word alone (haqq) means at the same time “true” and “real”. If one adds that the same term in the Jewish Bible designates law (hoqq, “ordinance”, “precept”), one cannot but be amazed by the vastness of the reflections that are thrown open beginning with this evocative polysemy.



The life of mankind is truly an incessant return to the great questions connected with the Truth. However, the equation “true' and 'real' that the etymology of this Arabic term would suggest, if interpreted in a rationalistic fashion, betrays a possible risk, that of deducing truth in a conceptualistic way, understanding it as a complete and formally consistent system of conceptual propositions. The act by which conscience relates to reality, that is to say the affirmation of truth, is thus “the fruit, of a representative character, of a mere conceptual operation”. And as a consequence an action is said to be “the carrying out of this previously known ideal”. A practical variant of this approach, which is well described in the Gospel story of the young rich man, is the legalism that “has it that freedom is possessed before being expressed in an act, arguing that its meaning has already been given once and for ever in the norm”. This vision of truth in the ultimate analysis is a form of idolatrous gnosis, because it conceals the claim that man possesses through his limited outlook the complete physiognomy of God.



But as we read in the last edition of Oasis, “praise be to He who had given to his creatures no other way of knowing Him than their inability to know Him”. These are the words of Abû Bakr, the first successor to the Prophet of Islam, which the author of the article rightly puts side by side with the si comprehendis, non est Deus of St. Augustine. A relationship of possession with truth, almost as though we could dispose of it as just one thing amongst others, is not possible; in essential terms it is not even thinkable. Both Islam and Christianity well know why this is: truth is not a packet of notions but a living and personal reality which continually calls freedom into play. Its manifestation cannot be inserted a priori into the narrow boxes of a reason understood geometrically. In other words, the Truth itself, which is transcendent and absolute, requires, in order to be attested to man, the act of his decision. Reflecting in the past on this subject, I emphasised that “truth places man in the need for a free decision not only because it opens up to him the area of the answer but because it requires it because man by his origins is destined for truth”. There thus emerges in evident fashion the importance of modern reflection on freedom, not only in a political sense (the freedom of peoples and nations) but first of all in relation to its intrinsic relationship with truth. The truth of freedom implies freedom to adhere to truth. If this is true for our Western history, one can equally say the same of the Arab-Islamic world.



The Community Dimension



Benedict XVI in his recent address to the United Nations stated that “The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology or with majority religious positions of an exclusive nature. The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order”. These words of the Holy Father oblige us to bear in mind the community dimension of religious freedom. Objectively, this is a critical point: indeed, what happens to the identity of a community if a sizeable number of people begin to call it into question either because they come from another religion or because they convert to another religion? It is not difficult to understand that this fact is potentially a source of tensions.



The teaching of the protagonists of the Catholic orientalism of the twentieth century demonstrates that the Catholic Church does not have as its goal that of placing at risk the bases of shared social life in countries with Muslim majorities. It does not identify with an aggressive proselytising approach that demonises non-Christian cultures and religions. Father Anawati, a great Egyptian Dominican, a theologian and a philosopher, confessed at the end of his life: “I do not study Muslim culture in order to destroy it. What should I destroy it? It is something that is beautiful in itself. It should be appreciated”. At the same time, however, respect for the identity of the community cannot be pushed to the point of violating the human freedom of the individual. Today this should be borne witness to in a decisive way in relation to our Muslim interlocutors. Catholic doctrine on the subject certainly does not think of religious freedom as an option in an imaginary “supermarket of religions”. It stresses that religious freedom is a consequence of the absolute and incumbent duty of everyone to adhere to the Truth, but with an objective and suitable conscience. It is this obedience mediated by the conscience that is the foundation of religious freedom, which should not be limited to the mere possibility of engaging in worship but which also includes the right to change one's religion.



Here as well a clarification is required: in doing this the Church does not state that every choice in this sphere is good. Error in itself does not have rights but a person with an upright conscience who falls into error possesses this freedom. Certainly not before God but before other people, society and the State. Only God is the judge of the choices of the individual in this field. Only He can know what is to be found in the heart of man and why he decides to abandon one religion to join another. One could object that the State, even though it is evidently not able to enter the hearts of men, is nonetheless interested in maintaining the cohesion of the community. In this critical reservation truth is to be found and to such an extent that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council chose to add to the declaration on religious freedom contained in Dignitatis Humanae the restrictive clause “Provided the just demands of public order are observed” (n. 4). However, granted this clarification, one cannot but ask oneself what good can follow for the truth from keeping people in a religion in which they no longer believe. Is it really more deleterious for a community to have an explicit abandonment of a religion than a profession of that religion which is only a façade? One of the fathers of modern Islamic reformism, the Egyptian Muhammad 'Abduh (1849-1905), answered in the negative, inviting people to distinguish between the very early moments of Islam - where in his view the embryonic nature of that movement justified the use of coercion - and its subsequent epochs where such a need declined.



The Primacy of Witness



In presenting these questions for the reflection of our readers, I would like to end by recalling the short analysis (to which I referred at the beginning of this paper) of the opposing difficulties that the West and the world of a Muslim majority encounter in engaging in a correct approach to religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and the freedom to convert. These difficulties, in fact, well demonstrate that a due assent to truth is always dramatic because freedom must decide always and once again in every individual act. How? By the at times impervious pathway of witness understood as an approach that is both practical and speculative, and from which nobody, and even less Christians, can withdraw. Witness understood in these terms for us obliges us to present to our Muslim interlocutors what we believe to be the authentic cultural interpretation of Christian faith. And this is possible only through mutual involvement.






The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation